Adolescent Decision Making: Implications for Prevention Programs . Media Influences


The media — television, radio, movies, music videos — are part of the social environment in which today's young people grow up, and they can contribute to setting social norms.  Presenter Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, pointed out that young teenagers spend up to seven hours a day watching television and that older teenagers may spend more than seven hours a day listening to the radio and CDs or watching music videos.  There is a tremendous amount of sexual innuendo and sexual activity portrayed in the media, and most of that sexual activity is between unmarried people, according to Brown.  In her research, presenter Monique Ward, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, found that 29 percent of interactions between television characters is sexual in nature (Ward, 1995).  She pointed out that drinking permeates television, with 70 percent of prime time network shows portraying at least one instance of alcohol consumption.  There is also some indication that the portrayal of cigarette smoking is on the increase both in movies and on television (Klein et al., 1993; Terre et al., 1991).  Little research has been done to document the effect of media portrayals of sexual behavior or alcohol, tobacco, and drug use on the behavior of teenagers.  Ward has found some evidence that the media may influence social norms.  Her research found that young adults who watch television shows with high sexual content, such as nighttime soap operas and music videos, tend to have more liberal sexual attitudes and to believe their peers are more sexually active than do those who do not watch such shows.

Advertisers spend millions of dollars trying to influence product purchases.  A number of studies have shown that tobacco advertising and promotional activities may encourage young people to begin and to continue smoking (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1992, 1994; Pierce et al., 1991, 1998).  Pierce and colleagues (1998) estimated that 34 percent of teenage experimentation with cigarettes in California between 1993 and 1996 could be attributed to cigarette advertising and promotional activities (e.g., distribution of t-shirts and other items with cigarette logo).

The media may also be used to present positive messages.  The Partnership for a Drug-Free America tries to use advertisers' information about influencing teenagers to create messages that discourage drug use.  Presenter Sean Clarkin, senior vice president and deputy director of creative development at the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, explained the partnership's work and expanded on the discussion of the kinds of messages that might reach young people and affect their decisions.  The partnership has held numerous focus groups with adolescents, follows research on adolescent attitudes and drug use, and conducts its own annual national study, the Partnership Attitude Tracking Study.  From its focus groups and surveys, the partnership believes that no single message will be effective with all teenagers, so its goal is to have a variety of messages.  Clarkin indicated that for youngsters who have not yet engaged in drug use and are not interested in trying drugs, messages that emphasize the positive aspects of remaining drug free appear to be the best way to encourage them to remain so.  For teenagers who are undecided about whether to try drugs, the partnership thinks that messages that emphasize the risks of drug use seem to be most effective.  Echoing a point made by presenter Robert Denniston, director of the Secretary's Initiative on Youth Substance Abuse Prevention in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — Clarkin said the risks portrayed must be believable to the youngsters, must be concrete and immediate, and must focus on social risks, rather than health or legal risks.

Other participants raised the issue of including prosocial messages in entertainment programming and not just in public service announcements.  One participant pointed to a story line on the TV program Beverly Hills 90210 several years ago that portrayed a character using good decision-making techniques in deciding whether or not to begin having sex.  Another mentioned that the effect of health-related themes on shows such as ER is being studied by the Kaiser Foundation.  Clarkin noted that periodic attempts are made to interest Hollywood producers in including more prosocial messages, but that these attempts meet with mixed results.